James Vorderbruggen and Edward Burnell
Through a year of co-learning, Ujima and Mass Mesh will organize a community-owned wireless mesh network in Roxbury and Dorchester to provide home broadband access.
The Project Collective
Ujima Boston is a democratically controlled investment fund that seeks to establish residents’ control over development in Roxbury/Dorchester, in response to displacements of communities of color in Boston. In our interviews with core Ujima staff and members, their key goals were:
- building up a cooperative economy and black-led futures
- creating agency and self-determination (as defined by community members) in Roxbury and Dorchester
- meeting neighborhoods’ needs, but also building community assets
In 2018 Ujima used assemblies, dot voting, and polling to learn resident’s priorities for the fund, and learned that the top three were (in order) community land trusts, community-owned internet, and child care. During the coming year, Ujima is assessing the feasibility of various ways in each they might build these assets locally.
Mass Mesh was started to “fork the internet” (i.e., build an alternative communications network) by people shocked at the Snowden revelations and the infiltration of Occupy Boston by police. In our interviews with core Mass Mesh members, their key goals were:
- building a network with security and anonymity built in
- infrastructure for “the working class, not the owning class”
- eschewing capitalism
At Freedom Rally 2018, Mass Mesh installed six nodes providing internet access across the Boston Commons. This pop-up network proved the feasibility of the hardware but dissipated with the event.
Mass Mesh, Ujima, and other individual and organizational stakeholders will be working collectively over the next year to organize this mesh network. There are valuable convergences and divergences in collective member’s goals, backgrounds, and knowledges. While Mass Mesh developers tended to point out concerns with privacy and security, Ujima members were more worried about questions of autonomy. Both Mass Mesh and Ujima membership expressed concern with any strategy that emphasizes outdoor internet access. Both groups are far more interested in getting internet into people’s homes.
Our Understanding of the Situation
People of color have less access, knowledge, and skills pertaining to information and communication technology because of the ways in which such infrastructure is owned, developed, and managed. These impediments also exist for people with low income (and doubly so for those in the intersection). Manifestations of this digital divide are everywhere, and is visible in both broad statistics (see figures below) and in the lived experiences of Roxbury and Dorchester residents. Such infrastructural inequity is both unacceptable and unnecessary.
One mechanism for the digital divide’s enforcement is the pursuit of profit by corporate ISPs. Internet providers often cite “lack of demand” as a reason to avoid building fixed broadband infrastructure in low-income areas. But what resident has no demand for internet access? The truth is, communities who lack financial appeal (or are “othered” by structural racism: after a Ujima meeting, one member joked about cable companies being unwilling to send vans into Black neighborhoods to do maintenance) get left behind in internet deserts with coverage by one or two low-quality providers, or more often, with no providers at all. Because infrastructural inequity has left the United States with broadband service that lags behind other developed countries, the FCC has attempted to map broadband coverage by census tract. Unfortunately, the FCC’s map is an optimistic speculation rendered virtually useless by its sampling methods. From FCC Form 477:
broadband connections are available in a census block if the provider does, or could, within a service interval that is typical for that type of connection […] provision two-way data transmission to and from the Internet with advertised speeds exceeding 200 kbps in at least one direction to end-user premises in the census block.
That is, rather than verifying the situation on the ground, the FCC just adds together ISPs’ optimistic maps of their possible future coverage. But even through such motivated projection, the competitive outlook for Roxbury and Dorchester is bleak, with only one or two providers in most areas. Residents know that the options available are even sparser than shown.
Such a lack of competition is built upon other monopolistic practices of internet service providers. Prior to 2005, cable and phone wires were considered Tier II (“common-carrier services”) in the United States. This meant that although most cable and phone wires were owned by a natural monopoly, local and regional internet service providers (ISPs) were allowed to use the wires to deliver data too. In 545 U.S. 967 (2005), however, the Supreme Court and FCC overturned their previous antitrust positions, affirming cable and phone wires as the private property of cable companies and so allowing cable monopolies to deny local and regional ISPs the right to exist. Consequently, at least 70% of all high speed internet service in the United States is now provided by just one company. This decision was reversed in 2015 with the Open Internet Order, which re-introduced net-neutrality. In 2017, though, Trump’s chosen FCC chairman Ajit Pai repealed this bill.
Simultaneously, legislation written by ALEC and other conservative lobbyists currently bans or significantly encumbers municipal Internet projects in 26 states, cable lobby groups have launched extensive advertising campaigns in opposition to municipal networks, and many government projects have been directly sued by the cable giants (presumably for over-delivering to their constituents). In Massachusetts, Charlie Baker’s 2018 economic development bill bars municipalities from using state funds to support broadband networks that would compete with private industry. Even if there were not such strong legal barriers to municipal internet projects, the necessity of trusting the City of Boston to maintain infrastructure needed primarily in poor Black neighborhoods reduces interest in municipality-owned internet.
Ujima members’ knowledge of telecoms’ ruthlessness has been expressed to us multiple times; no longer being dependent on them is a major motivation for interest in community-owned internet.
For details on our plans for the next year, see the full design brief!